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Since coming west almost a decade ago, I have developed a deep and meaningful relationship with Mexican food — a love affair with few disappointments, one of the most stable of my otherwise rather unstable life. I'm not saying I love tacos more than my wife, my parents, that first carbonated swallow of beer sizzling against the back of my throat at the end of a long day — but sometimes it's a near thing. If forced to choose between never having carnitas again or never having proper American barbecue, I'd have to give it a lot of thought.
I once drove two-thirds of the way across the country for the promise of some really good fish tacos and a couple of champion margaritas. Laura and I fell in love across platters of tacos and flautas and chile and cans of piss-thin sur de la frontera lagers. I once nearly died over (among other things) a bottle of Chihuahua beer in the parking lot behind a honky-tonk pool hall in San Francisco, and I've sworn to Laura that when, finally, our lives succumb to the terrible gravities of our pasts and implode, I will run off with her to Mexico, cross the border at Juarez near sunset, pick up some cheap smokes, prescription pills, Mexican Doritos and cases of beer, then head south until the urge to run leaves us. It was written into our vows when we got married, I think, a fundamental precept of our future planning.
When I was still living back east, Mexican food was an event, a challenge. Finding it was difficult, sometimes a mini-vacation in itself. The first posole I ever had was eaten hunched over a picnic table with a bunch of migrant peach-pickers (I hated it, by the way), and my ex and I used to celebrate with quesadillas and cold beers in the only restaurant in Rochester that was more Mex than Tex. One of the reasons Laura and I decided to stay in Albuquerque when we landed there (one of the reasons that wasn't penury, exhaustion, or the fact that my car died within sight of a man selling green chiles and piñon and jerky out of the back of a truck in a McDonald's parking lot) was because that city is a center for desebrado and menudo and tacos made out of cow face. If ever I have a tender thought about that grim, awful place (where I was once punched in the face for reading in public), it is for the restaurants there, the food they serve, the crews who do the work.
But here in Denver, I found another Shangri-La of buche and asada, of chile and churros and burritos. Here is a city where I can get breakfast burritos (delivered to the office, if necessary), tacos on almost every corner, decent (though never fantastic) green chile, the combined cuisines of Puebla and Michoacán and Chihuahua and the D.F., all without being assaulted for flaunting my literacy, without having to dodge the come-ons of the pubescent hookers working the stroll outside my three, four or five favorite places. I think I could eat Mexican food at a different place every day for a year here and never run short of new addresses to visit. I've done that before for a week, two. And what gets me every time — like seeing the mountains glowing, snowcapped, in the distance on my way into work makes me feel so very goddamn fortunate to have landed in this town — is that nearly every place I go not only has something to recommend it, but to love, to dream about, to return for again and again and again.
At D'Corazon, early on a Thursday evening, it's the chile con queso.
There's nothing particularly special about chile con queso — unless, of course, you find yourself with a mean craving for molten cheese and chopped chiles and good chips and a brace of cold Tecates with lime. That's how I was feeling on Thursday, and that was why I went to D'Corazon. I wanted beer and cheese and beer and chips and beer and the peace that comes from being an early-arriving one-top in a restaurant just beginning to fill for the early dinner rush. In that circumstance, under those conditions, it wasn't just a great bowl of chile con queso, but a fantastic one. And like an inveterate gambler on a sudden and unexpected hot streak, I just couldn't walk away from the table. I'd dip a chip in some queso, tell myself that it was my last one, read my book a little, drink my beer, and then catch my hand — purely of its own volition — going in for another. And then another. To wash it down, I needed another beer. To keep myself occupied waiting for the beer, I started a new chapter. To get through the chapter, I ate some more chips. And at that point, it was time for another beer...
Long ago, from what I understand, this spot was an outpost of Las Delicias, the homegrown Mexican chain. Later, Eddie Aguirre (who comes from the Las Delicias family) took over the address and made it his own, upscaling both the interior and the menu, giving it a LoDo vibe while still serving real Mexican food in the shadow of all those office towers that, nightly, spill out his best, most loyal customers. D'Corazon does good business. Dinners are busy, boisterous, with people occasionally banging like pinballs from the yellow walls. The margaritas facilitate this; they're strong and cheap, the two best things any margarita can ever aspire to be. At lunch the line can stretch out the door, every seat full, waitresses flitting from table to table like small, bright birds until the hours begin to wear and they start clomping like warhorses, tempers shortening, walking every step like it's uphill at a wicked slant. There's this joke: When D'Corazon opened, all the tables were round. It was the business, the speed of the staff flying by a hundred or a thousand times a day, that flattened all those easy curves, brought every table in the place to a fine, smooth square. It's not a true story, but it's true.
I like D'Corazon when it's busy, when I snag the last seat on the floor. I like it better, though, when it's quiet, in the lull between crushing hits. The radio here plays nothing but Mexican music — ballads and love songs, heavy on the accordions. I like it when I hear one of the waitresses start singing along, only to catch herself, remembering two or three bars too late that there's still a couple customers on the floor, or just one. Just me.
Friday evening, I return hungry for pork chops, for quesadillas like I used to get back in the day. Threading my way through the knots of customers toward a vacant high-top near the bar, I move through clouds of spice and smells like crossing the borders between competing states. Jalapeño and lime here, adobo there, mole poblano — thick and dark, bittersweet and sharp with dry red chiles, like an advertisement that no menu description can ever do justice.
Sadly, there's nothing especial about my quesadillas especiales. They're stuffed with tough and flavorless sliced steak and cheese like bargain-basement government cheddar, and clumsily folded. Even the tortillas — usually so good here, crisp from the flat grill and smelling like bread just out of the oven — taste stale. So I drink tequila, hoping to forget, and it works: When my pork chops arrive (ranchero-style, slathered with bell peppers and onions and a thin sauce that tastes of tomatillos), I am hungry all over again, and dig into the plate almost before it has reached the safety of the tabletop.
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Mexican pork chops have become one of my weird little food obsessions over the years. I love how they come thin, cooked all to hell, and require real effort to eat. I love how they go down like pig jerky — in small bites, chewed over for a good, long time. I love how the sauce (red enchilada sauce or green chile or something like this ranchero) serves to lubricate each bite, soften and smooth the experience. I like it that D'Corazon's pork chops require some rasslin' before they go down; in that way, they remind me of those Mexican pork chops I ate in neon-lit little shops off the main drag, in shacks in neighborhoods where my high school and kitchen Spanish did me no good at all. The side of rice is dry (and mixed with desiccated peas and bits of carrot like a Mexican Top Ramen). The refritos are forgettable. But the chops I eat right down to the bone.
On Monday, I'm back for carnitas in a dining room that's silent but for the Spanish Muzak and a waitress singing along up by the hostess stand. The carnitas come wet, falling to pieces as soon as I look at them, and are delicious wrapped in a tortilla (good again) with a smear of guacamole and a little lettuce. I skip the rellenos because I have never developed a Coloradan's taste for them and take some tacos to go off the à la carte menu — three of them for six bucks and change, all desebrado, gone before I make it back to the office. I'm back on Tuesday for enchiladas, comfort food for the ethnically displaced. As with the chile con queso, I can't stop eating them. I put away the entire plate, scraping after the scraps with the edge of my fork. When I think no one is looking, I eat some of the leftover sauce with a spoon and savor the burn on the roof of my mouth like it was whiskey.
I have come a long way for food like this. Not just for D'Corazon, but for Colorado's Mexican panoply — for every little weird strip-mall joint and side-street taquería, for every cart, every truck, every proper restaurant where the guys in the back really know their way around a plate of tacos. Unashamedly, I love something about almost every single one of them. My favorites change like my mood — week to week, minute to minute. Today, my favorite is D'Corazon.
But that might just be because I have a fridge full of leftover carnitas and pork chops waiting for me at home.